Auburn, Ala. — No one could’ve seen this coming.
No one except the Auburn Tigers, that is.
Somehow, they never lost faith.
Not when they surrendered 11 sacks in an early season loss to Clemson.
Not when they turned it over five times against little bitty Mercer, needing a late touchdown just to secure the victory.
Not even when they threw away a 20-point lead at LSU, seemingly finishing off any hopes of a memorable season.
Yet, there they were Saturday evening, surrounded by thousands of ecstatic fans who stormed onto Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, celebrating a 26-14 victory over top-ranked Alabama.
For anyone who witnessed Auburn’s entire body of work these past three months, it must seem like another Miracle on the Plains.
A repeat of Kick Six, if you will.
But really, there was nothing miraculous about it all.
No. 6 Auburn is playing as well as any team in the country at the moment, a squad that’s peaking at just the right time. There was no doubt about who was the better team on this day. If the Tigers can beat No. 7 Georgia again in next weekend’s Southeastern Conference championship game — and they already blew out the Bulldogs two weeks ago, 40-17 — they’ll be more than worthy of a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Never mind those two losses.
“I don’t think it’s hard to believe,” said quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the transfer from Baylor who epitomizes this Jekyll-and-Hyde of a team as well as anyone. “I’m with these guys day in and day out. I know what kind of character this team has. I know what kind of people are on this team. Very resilient. We knew that everything we wanted to accomplish was still in front of us to make it to the SEC championship. And, sure enough, we took care of business every week after LSU. Here we are, sitting in a great spot.”
He added, his voice oozing with confidence, “I think we’re pretty darn good.”
Stidham must’ve been wondering what he got himself into back in September, when the second game of the season turned into a mauling at the hands of Clemson. The defending national champions limited Auburn to a grand total of 117 yards. When Stidham wasn’t running for his life — usually, without much success — he threw for a puny 79 yards on 13 completions in a 14-6 loss.
The next week, Auburn piled up plenty of yards against Mercer, as one would expect facing a lower-division school that relaunched its football program only five seasons ago. Yet, four fumbles and an interception left the Tigers clinging to a mere 17-10 lead well into the fourth quarter. There was nothing but relief when the clock reached zero on a lackluster 24-10 victory.
Three more wins followed. Then came that debacle in Baton Rouge , when Auburn jumped ahead 20-0 by early in the second quarter but couldn’t hold on. LSU rallied for 13 points in the final period, sparked by a 75-yard punt return, and Stidham had an awful night with just six completions in 26 throws.
“That kind of hurt at the moment,” linebacker Tre Williams said. “But I knew we still had a lot of football to play. I believed in the team, and the team believed in each other. I knew we would come back from it.”
Come back, they did.
Beating up on Arkansas and Texas A&M restored some confidence. But the season really turned when resurgent Georgia arrived at Jordan-Hare for the latest installment in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry. The Bulldogs were riding high — undefeated and No. 1 in CFP standings. They were no match for Auburn, which stifled the dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on the way to a 23-point blowout.
Then, on Saturday, the Tigers (10-2, 7-1 SEC) turned in a performance that was even sweeter.
In a way, it meant more than the improbable victory over Alabama four years ago, when the Crimson Tide came up short on a potential game-winning field goal — and the Tigers returned it 109 yards for their own game-winning touchdown.
That was a miracle. This was meant to be.
“I feel like we’re playing the best we’ve ever played since I’ve been here,” junior cornerback Carlton Davis said. “I can’t compare my team to other teams. I just know what we can do.”
Alabama (11-1, 7-1) can do nothing but hope. A fourth straight playoff appearance is still a possibility, but the Tide needs some help. Either Wisconsin or Oklahoma will have to lose in their conference championship game next weekend to clear a spot.
“We are a one-loss team and we lost to a really good team,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “I think we deserve a chance to be in the playoffs.”
Auburn’s fate is entirely in its hands, and perhaps on the right shoulder of all-world running back Kerryon Johnson.
He trudged off the field in the closing minutes with his arm dangling at his side, casting doubt on whether he’ll be able to go in the SEC championship game. All he did against Alabama was throw for a touchdown on a nifty jump pass at the goal line, run for another score, catch three passes and finish with 104 yards on 30 bruising carries.
Clemson’s No. 1
Clemson is the nation’s new No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll and the Amway coaches’ poll, following former No. 1 Alabama’s loss to Auburn.
The top five in both polls, released Sunday, are Clemson, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Auburn and Alabama.
Michigan State, which finished its regular season 9-3 after clubbing Rutgers on Saturday, is No. 19 in both polls. The Spartans had been No. 21 in AP and No. 22 in the coaches' poll.
Ferris State advances
Senior running back Jahaan Brown had a pair of touchdown runs of 3 yards each as Ferris State defeated Fort Hays State, 31-21, Saturday in an NCAA Division II second-round playoff game at Lewis Field Stadium in Hays, Kansas.
Malik Taylor (four receptions for 54 yards) caught a TD pass for No. 4-seed Ferris State (11-1), which has won nine straight and advances to play No. 7 Harding (10-3) in the quarterfinals at noon Saturday in Big Rapids.
Dual-threat quarterback Reggie Bell led the Bulldogs' attack, which compiled 460 yards in offense. He was 13-of-23 for 168 yards passing while running for 78 yards on 20 carries. Brandon Walker had three catches for 119 yards, including one grab for 66 yards.
... The UAB Blazers will cap their first season back on the field in the Bahamas, where they will face Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 22.
■Stanford (9-3) vs. Southern Cal (10-2), at Santa Clara, Calif., 8 p.m. (ESPN)
■Toledo (10-2) vs. Akron (7-5), at Ford Field, noon (ESPN)
■TCU (10-2) vs. Oklahoma (11-1), at Arlington, Texas, 12:30 p.m. (Fox)
■Georgia (11-1) vs. Auburn (10-2), at Atlanta, 4 p.m. (CBS)
■Ohio State (10-2) vs. Wisconsin (12-0), at Indianapolis, 8 p.m. (Fox)
■Clemson (11-1) vs. Miami (10-1), at Charlotte, N.C., 8 p.m. (ABC)